Monday, 19 September 2011

Post Democracy and Post Modernity

'Night Waves' (BBC Radio 3) always provides stimulating discussion even if the experience can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating as one feels increasing feeble in the presence of the great minds.

Last week, one of the subjects under consideration was that of 'post democracy' as identified by professor Colin Copus. The basic notion of post democracy should, rather unsurprisingly, be worrying for democrats. It is that whilst the mechanisms and structures of democracy remain in place - elections, rights, rule of law, separation of powers - the content is being emptied of substance since, as Copus puts it, 'the energy has gone elsewhere'.

Just where has it gone? To major interest groups, particularly wealthy corporate interests, which now not only spend their time lobbying but do so 'within the chamber' i.e. they are not just making the case, they are helping to form the response. This direct involvement and indeed entanglement (see hacking scandal) is a major threat since it renders decision making much less visible and less accountable. In other words decision taking is increasingly done in ways other than through the channels that have been established to give effect to democracy.

To some extent politicians have been encouraging of this sort of development. The impatience with opposition or obstacle of any kind has manifested in various ways from the 'one of us' style of sofa government to the reduction in powers for bodies such as local authorities. Thanks to recent scandals on expenses and on hacking, light is now being shone on some of the murkier post-democractic recesses.

At much the same time as thinking about post democracy, I read a piece by Hari Kunzru which was the most lucid writing on postmodernism that I have yet found:

Kunzru makes some penetrating distinctions between modernism and postmodernism: 'If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.' Modernism had as its heart the idea of form following function. It supported a rational future. But its failings became all too apparent in the swathes of high rise tower blocks and grim functionality which all too often was in practice dysfunctional. The emphasis on reason and order which had been integral to much political and sociological thought since the Enlightenment but already buckling in response to some of the horrors inflicted in the 20th century seemed to have run up against the buffers.

At this point I enter highly risky territory in bringing together slippery concepts which apply in relation to both art and philosophy. But here goes.

Democracy has to combine form and substance or it dies. We have become very adept at style and the debasement of terminology. Everything is 'democratic' in some way. The favoured way in a post democractic world is that of grass roots activism and community organisation. It is one that meshes well with a broad neoliberal emphasis on the removal of constraint; on seeing choice and opportunity as the hallmarks of a good system and on fewer rules as almost always a good thing (except perhaps when it comes to personal morality - which, ironically, is in part response to the relativism unleashed by post-modern thinking).

But the dangers of post democracy are very real - irresponsibility among decision makers and a failure of the democratic system to deliver for those who are most disadvantaged in society.

Our wealth may be unequal. Our votes should all score the same. If there is an inside track and a weakening of the rules of the game, such democractic check as there is on inequality is significantly reduced.

A final quote from Kunzru: 'You look around at your beautiful house and your beautiful wife and you ask yourself, like the narrator of the Talking Heads song: 'Well, how did I get here?" After that, it's only a short step to deciding that this is not your beautiful house and your beautiful wife at all.'

In respect of democracy we do actually know how we 'got here'. We may enjoy the playfulness and the wit of posst modernism but we need a democracy which is about more than a pick and mix borrowing of the ideas of the past and an easy way with dressing up systems in democratic colours. It is easy to be playful when unhelpful rules can be wished away. In contrast playing by the rules is a lot tougher. How we 'do' democracy matters deeply - its form is there to give effect to its function which is precisely to try to ensure that what is done commands broad support and that decisions are not taken in the interests of the few.

Post-modernism may now be behind us but it may be replaced by a future of post-modernity characterised by 'disorganisation' rather than by the order and reason which underpinned modernism. In such a disorganised future - which envisages a disintegration of the role of the state; the growth of consumerism and an increase in the strength of multi-national corporate interests - post-democracy fits well. 

That certainly makes me want to restate the case for the full substance of democracy - warts and all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment